Start main page content

One of the world’s coolest inventions

- Professor Barry Dwolatzky

South African-born engineer and entrepreneur is making a significant contribution in the fight against Covid-19.

Neill Lane and Dr Dave Berchowitz from Stirling UltraCold

Athens, Ohio, and Potchefstroom, South Africa, seem to be worlds apart, but they do have some surprising similarities and connections. Athens is a small city in America’s Midwest. It has a tiny “downtown” area with a few shop-lined streets, some churches and modest historical buildings. It has more than its fair share of trendy food places, bars with live music and coffee shops. These serve the needs of its nomadic population of university students. Dominating the city is the largest campus of the Ohio University with an enrolment – in Athens – of about 22,000 students. The non-student population of Athens is about 5,000.

Potchefstroom, usually called “Potch”, and now officially renamed Tlokwe, is also a university town. North-West University (NWU) dominates the town. It has roughly the same size student population as Athens. The non-student population is, however, more than 43,000 – making it far larger than Athens. The area around NWU also has a vast selection of bars and food places.

For me the link between Athens and Potch is the person responsible for one of the world’s coolest inventions. His name is Dr Dave Berchowitz, a South African innovator and fiercely persistent entrepreneur. Berchowitz was born and raised in Potch. After finishing school at Potch Boys High, Berchowitz went to Wits University to study aeronautical engineering in the 1970s. This is where I met him. I was studying electrical engineering at the same time. We became lifelong friends.

Berchowitz is a stereotypical nerd with a sharp intellect, broad-ranging interests, a quirky sense of humour and strong sense of social justice. He is also a fantastic engineer – one of the best I know - able to easily move from the highly theoretical to the deeply practical within the space of a single sentence.

As a master’s and later as a PhD student at Wits working under Professor Costa Rallis, Berchowitz became interested in Stirling Engines. I won’t at this point shoot off on a complicated technical tangent. Suffice it to say that these are “external combustion” engines developed in the early 1800s. They have many attractive properties, particularly their very high level of energy efficiency. The Stirling Engine lost out to “internal combustion”, the familiar petrol- or diesel-powered engines under the bonnets of our cars, in the 1920s. They soon dropped off the mainstream engineering radar screen.

In the late 1970s Berchowitz took his new-born passion for Stirling Engines to the USA where he joined a company called “Sunpower” in Athens, Ohio. Sunpower was established in the 1960s by William Beale, a passionate inventor and mechanical engineering lecturer at the Ohio University. It was one of very few companies in the world developing technology based on Stirling Engines. Beale recognised Berchowitz’s engineering genius and quickly promoted him to a senior technical position at Sunpower. One of Berchowitz’s projects was to develop a Stirling cooler. This is a refrigerator driven by a Stirling engine rather than a conventional compressor.

In the mid-1980s I visited Berchowitz at Sunpower in Athens. On his desk was a steel cylinder the size of a 1 litre cold drink bottle lying on its side. Berchowitz lit a small blowtorch and focused the naked blue flame on one end of the cylinder. As it heated up icicles started to form on the other end. The more the flame heated its end of the cylinder, the colder the other end became. In my fascination I stretched out a hand to touch the cold end. “Careful!” Berchowitz shouted. “It’s so cold your finger might stick to it.”

The technology was world-leading then, and it’s still at the forefront of cooling technology today. One of Berchowitz’s coolers went into space as part of an experiment on one of the NASA Shuttle Missions. After a few years Berchowitz set up his own company, called Global Cooling, to take this amazing technology to market. Over the next 30 years Berchowitz lived the very unexotic life of a tech entrepreneur. There were a few highs when it looked like Global Cooling would achieve it’s “big breakthrough”. Partnerships and joint ventures with some of the biggest technology companies in the world were explored, but … as any entrepreneur will tell you … unsuccessful deals are far more common than successful ones.

In 2009 another Wits alumnus (BSc (Eng), Mechanical, 1982), Neill Lane, joined Global Cooling as CEO. Berchowitz’s small factory in Athens grew a bit and shrank a bit as the years went by and the engineer from Potch struggled to find his niche. He was driven by the unwavering conviction that his Stirling coolers were unique and far better than any of its competitors. His belief and passion for what he had built never faltered even when money ran low and yet another deal ended in disappointment.

And then … in March 2020 … the Covid-19 pandemic reached the USA. The race for a vaccine became the overriding priority for scientists and engineers in every corner of the world. The most promising vaccines, using mRNA-based medical formulations, have one major downside. They need to be stored at an extremely low temperature: minus 70 degrees Celsius! Where will we get coolers that can work efficiently at such a low temperature? A small company, Global Cooling, now called Stirling UltraCold, in Athens, Ohio, had the answer, and knew that its time had come!

In the wake of the global pandemic, so many terrible and negative outcomes have resulted. There have, fortunately, been a few bright lights. One of these is that our own determined inventor from Potchefstroom and Wits University has at last achieved his long awaited and well deserved “big breakthrough”. Berchowitz, South African-born engineer and entrepreneur, is making a significant contribution in the fight against Covid-19, and prospective investors are beating a path to this small university town. I recently heard that Stirling UltraCold has been acquired and merged with the listed company BioLife Solutions, opening up many exciting new opportunities for Berchowitz, Lane, who is now Chief Strategy Officer, and their team.